The New York Times announced it: Larry Kramer is dead at age 84, after a long bout with non-COVID-related pneumonia. I find those words together almost unfathomable. Even though we all knew Larry had been sick and frail for much of the past decade, it's still hard to imagine a New York City—let alone a world—without Larry Kramer. It's almost as though Gay God—or at least Gay Moses—has died, leaving us all without that fist-shaking, angry father who showed his tougher-than-nails love for us through his constant disappointment and excoriation. I'll never forget the time I was interviewing Larry in his big house in Connecticut for a 2007 POZ cover story, just the two of us and his dog. Not liking one of my questions, he exploded and called me a fucking piece of shit. By the end of the interview, he gave me a big hug as he saw me out to my car. That was Larry.
And Larry was many people. A child of both incredible privilege and brutal midcentury homophobia. A successful Hollywood writer who gave it up to write openly (and, in the novel Faggots, viciously) about gay life—and then, once it hit, about AIDS. A writer whose works never got the literary or artistic acclaim he wanted but nonetheless had tremendous political power, especially his towering agitprop 1985 AIDS play "The Normal Heart." An extraordinary galvanizer of movements and organizations (primarily GMHC and then ACT UP) but not the best when it came to long-term, collaborative follow-through. Someone who loved his LGBTQ peers as fiercely and sweetly as he could demonize and humiliate them, reducing grown men to tears. Someone who saw with incredible clarity society's harms toward gay men and lesbians but didn't seem to see as clearly the challenges faced by other groups affected by AIDS—poor people, straight women, people of color and the globally afflicted.
How can one piece possibly embody all the contradictions of Larry Kramer, possibly the most important gay person of the 20th century? Here's an attempt by some of the people who knew him best, even as they—and all of us—reckon with his death, at a moment when we in NYC cannot even come together physically to mourn and celebrate Larry and all that he meant.
ANN NORTHROP, fellow ACT UP activist (who talked about Larry's death today on her cable TV show)
I loved Larry. Loved him even though I disagreed with him maybe half the time. I thought he was sometimes too negative and despairing. But he cared so much about us—he really cared. He would endlessly say, "I love gay people and gay people are better than anyone else." He had very high standards for us, and of course gay people are just as stupid as everyone else, if not more so.
So he was constantly disappointed. But I loved his high standards. He was not someone who was willing to compromise. And I agree with him that we LGBTQ people are still stigmatized and thought of as second-class citizens. And he wanted to get rid of all that. I don't know if some of that comes out of his having been at Yale during the vicious gay witch hunts, which I think must have been a very formative experience for him. He's talked about trying to commit suicide at that time. And I think at some point after he just said, "Fuck it, I'm not taking this anymore. And I am going to personify gay self-respect and demand that from others." And I adored Larry for that. It's hard to hold your head high when you're treated like garbage on a daily basis. And not nearly enough people understand the extent to which we are still hated.
I actually didn't meet him until I came to ACT UP in early 1988 and worked with him, loved him, became good friends. I was facilitating ACT UP meetings and once he was sitting in the audience and raised his hand and for whatever reason I didn't know who he was. So I called on him but only halfway through his speaking did it dawn on me who he was.
He never tore me down. Do I think he was gentler with women? Possibly. I think there are women who think he was a little misogynist, but I would say that he was capable of making ignorant statements while not actually being misogynist. I think he actually worked very well with women and respected and appreciated them.
The moment that impressed me most was in an ACT UP meeting right after Mayor David Dinkins had appointed as health commissioner Woody Myers, who'd come from Indiana, where they were threatening to quarantine people with AIDS. Larry stood on a chair and screamed, "We have to do something about this right now!" and got everyone to get up and run out of the room to [the mayor's residence] Gracie Mansion to stage a very large protest against Dinkins for hiring him. Larry was just not someone who wanted to wait around.
After he spoke at the Reclaim Pride 50th anniversary of Stonewall event in Central Park last summer, where he upset the crowd by saying that we had all failed the AIDS and the LGBTQ movement, that we hadn't fought hard enough, I went up to him and gave him a kiss. "Did I make you angry?" he asked me. I said no—which I'm sure disappointed him.
PETER STALEY, fellow ACT UP member (the below excerpted with permission from his Facebook tribute to Larry)
I was just a kid when I walked into my first ACT UP meeting, just weeks after Larry Kramer’s movement-launching speech in March of ‘87. I hadn’t heard about the speech. I didn’t even know who he was. But I would hear of it soon enough. Larry’s life became part of the steep learning curve I desperately climbed that year.
We were all kids, except for Larry, Maxine, and a few others. He even called us “my kids.” I tried to grab a seat close to him at Woody’s after Monday night meetings, where ACT UP’s most committed members would stay up late, deconstructing the meeting, debating our future, and dishing the group’s gossip over many beers.
Those moments were the happiest I’ve ever seen him. He was finally witnessing the community he dreamed of. He loved our youthful energy and picking our brains. For me and many others, Larry became a father figure, asking about our lives, setting us up on dates...and genuinely caring about our struggles and fears.
We forget that ACT UP was born six years into the crisis. Six lost years, as the country and its president ignored a new virus that was slaughtering a community they despised. Larry told us to fight back. In short order, we guilt-tripped an entire nation of people and two Republican presidents to react. By 1990, the AIDS research budget at the NIH hit one billion dollars a year.
It was a movement that caused that sudden shift, but Larry was its spark. Those tax dollars resulted in treatments that keep 25 million people with HIV alive today.
When TAG split off from ACT UP in ’92, our relationship took its first of many blows. But by then, we had too much shared history to turn our backs on. Too many meetings. Too many phone calls. Too many shared losses. A deep well of mutual respect set in. Even though we both came to view each other as deeply flawed, the respect remained.
He accused me of "destroying ACT UP," and for not being angry enough in the years since. I accused him of being woefully out of touch. By the early 90s, he was a broken record that’s been skipping ever since. He never understood science, which became a prerequisite for effective AIDS activism. He was a borderline conspiracy theorist. The clarity of vision he had in the 80s turned into a blindness of sorts, especially around the remarkable progress younger LGBTQ Americans have fought for and won.
Even his early legacy became muddied for me over time. There were two Larry’s back then. The first deserves every statute that gets built in his honor – the Larry who used anger to launch the two main branches of our community’s AIDS response, the beautiful self-care response that Gay Men’s Health Crisis valiantly built while the world looked away, and the activist response that forced that same world to look, and respond.
The second Larry was the moralist whose finger-wagging, like all finger-wagging, brought adulation from other moralists, but had no effect on the rest of us. AIDS was not a price we paid for finally building communities of freedom on both coasts.
To this day, gay men carry the added burden of a society that sexually shames us. Larry played a part in this. To be fair, most of this critique is inside baseball. To the larger world, Larry was our community’s greatest advocate. He constantly told straight America that his gay brothers and sisters were the most beautiful people on earth. He pushed back against the hate directed at us like no advocate before him. Larry loved gay people, and spent his entire life fighting for us.
I just got off the phone with Tony Fauci. I broke the news to him via text earlier today. We’re both surprised how hard this is hitting. We both cried on the call.
I’ve told Larry to fuck-off so many times over the last thirty years that I didn’t expect to break down sobbing when he died.
Larry’s timing couldn’t be worse. The community he loved can’t come together – as only we can – in a jam-packed room, to remember him. We can’t cry as one and hear our community’s most soaring words, with arms draped on shoulders in loving support. Broadway has no lights to dim, which it surely would have.
Can we please do this next year?
Fuck, this hurts. I keep flashing back to those early ACT UP meetings. I put on a good show, always in mission-mode. But the more I’ve written about those years, the more I’ve remembered how scared I was – diagnosed when I was 24 years old. It was all bottled up, but I was terrified. Those meetings gave me the only hope I could find back then. Larry orchestrated the launch of ACT UP. He plotted with Eric Sawyer and others, planting calls for a new group during the Q&A after his speech.
Larry Kramer founded a movement, and I’m alive because of that. Millions more can say the same. All his faults fade away in the wake of our thanks.
GREG ROTHMAN, physical therapist, Larry's trainer the past decade
I became Larry's trainer before his 75th birthday about nine years ago. I used to be a manager at Equinox and one of my former trainers called me and said, "Hey, would you go see an older gentleman at home? He's really difficult but I think you could handle him. Oh, and would it make a difference if you knew it were Larry Kramer, because it is?" I said it would definitely make a difference.
So I went to Larry's apartment and met him and [Larry's husband] David [Webster] and talked him through what he needed. I said to him, "I think that working together we could really help you feel better and have strength to do your work," and he liked that idea.
I trained him in the gym in his apartment building. We started with machines, which I hate, but once he got stronger, we switched to free weights and lots of agility drills like side-stepping and cross-overs. He told me he hated working out but loved seeing me. "And I know I have to do this," he'd say. So we'd chat while we worked out and we became friends. Sometimes we'd go to his favorite place around the corner, The Knickerbocker Grill, and he'd wolf down a hamburger and fries. He came to a couple parties at my house where I promised him I'd have shrimp cocktail available. He loved shrimp cocktail, chocolate and turkey sandwiches. He hated Ensure, which David made him drink.
I recently found a photo of us walking in Washington Square Park. When we did that, I remember at least one person coming up to him and saying, "I wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for you." He'd nod. He didn't like talking to people he didn't know.
Did I ever see his angry side? twice. I was pushing him and he was in a bad mood and it was like a thunderstorm came down from God. He was often moody, depressed, afraid David was going to leave him. His love for David was epic. There wasn't a day when he didn't mention how much he loved him.
CHRISTOPHER BRAM, novelist and friend
Larry and I had primarily a literary relationship. I knew him primarily through reading his work, some of which I liked, some I didn't. Just when I thought I had him figured out, he'd go and do something. Like at [gay filmmaker and activist] Vito Russo's funeral [in 1990, death from AIDS], Larry stood up and looked at the crowd and said, "You all killed Vito Russo." I'm looking around the room and thinking, no, these are all people who did whatever they could for Vito.
I once wrote a piece defending Faggots [Kramer's 1978 novel highly critical of hedonistic gay sexual culture, full of thinly veiled portraits of real people in the NYC gay scene]. Mark Merlis also wrote a piece defending the book. And after Larry did an interview in which he excoriated all gay writers, including Mark and me, for not writing about "important things." And at that moment he knew we'd both defended his work, but it didn't matter.
HOWARD GROSSMAN, longtime HIV doctor and friend
The first time I knew of Larry was when Faggots came out. My neighbor in NYC was a beautiful blond guy and he and his friends were the "A-list" gays of Fire Island, and I came home one day and all his friends were in his apartment, in tears. The book had just come out and they were all in it, their names barely changed, full of conversations they had had word-for-word. I thought, "Larry Kramer must be the most evil person on earth."
Then in the early 90s, when I was just starting my doctor practice, I was at a party at Vito Russo's with all these elders of the gay liberation movement like Martin Duberman. Larry was there. He asked me what I thought of the new HIV drug ddC and I said I thought that the data didn't look very hopeful. In front of this roomful of people I admired, Larry starts screaming at me, "You're the worst doctor in New York! You're supposed to be giving people hope!"
After everyone left, I cried. Vito said, "I've known Larry for 20 years, and he only yells at people he cares about—who he thinks can do better. That's why he always yells at The New York Times. If he didn't care about you, he wouldn't waste his time yelling at you." And Vito also said, "You have to listen to him beyond the anger, because there's always some truth in there that nobody else has said yet."
So I took that to heart and then Larry and I became friends through ACT UP. He asked me to be the medical adviser for the 20th anniversary revival of "The Normal Heart" at the Public Theater, then for the Broadway revival a few years later.
He wasn't the easiest friend, that's for sure. They broke the mold with him. He saw that sometimes there was a need to alienate people and blow down the door. But in the end, he just wanted to be loved. Faggots was his being pissed that gay society was shutting out love because we were so busy fucking everything in sight. And as angry as "The Normal Heart" is, it's a love story between two men. One on one, Larry could be a very loving man.
CHARLES KING, cofounder and CEO of Housing Works (which grew out of ACT UP), fellow ACT UP member
Larry is a hero for having had the foresight to start ACT UP. He was also a very complicated guy. He saw the AIDS epidemic very much from the perspective of a middle-class gay white man who felt that he and his community were threatened, and I think he had some blind spots that contributed to some of the controversy within ACT UP. There was a big rift in the group between folks who were all about getting drugs into bodies versus the folks who saw the social determinants that were driving the epidemic, such as racism and disregard for homeless people and drug users—the folks who recognized that even if we got the drugs, we wouldn't end AIDS unless we addressed those social drivers. And I don't think Larry ever quite caught onto that.
The other place he had a big blind spot was around [the HIV prevention pill regimen] PrEP. He accepted this idea that we were bringing this plague on ourselves by being too promiscuous. He had that mindset back in the early days of AIDS, and it resurfaced when PrEP became available after 2012 and made the possibility of gay sex much safer against HIV without worrying about how many partners you had, or using a condom.
ERIC SAWYER, fellow ACT UP member and friend
I can't believe he died. He's been the cat with nine lives and I thought he'd just pulled it off again. He'd been in the hospital for several weeks with aspiration pneumonia and had just come off a respirator and was doing better. There was hope he'd be able to go home. Then boom—he's gone.
He was a fearless activist who spent the majority of his life fighting for the dignity and human rights of gay men and lesbians. Most of the world just knew him as a caustic, crabby activist, but in truth, he had a heart of gold and was one of the best friends and sweetest men I've ever known. He gave us an example in his relentless pursuit of turning grief and anger into action.
I met him in 1980 in the locker room of the West Side Y, right after I first moved to New York. I was reading Faggots and it fell out of my gym bag and the guy next to me said, "What do you think of it?", because the book was very controversial. I said, "It's really fascinating." And he said, "Would you like to meet Larry Kramer?" And he pointed across the locker room and said, "That's him." And I went to dinner with the two of them that night.
Once AIDS started in 1981, I'd go to meetings Larry told me about called "The Network," organized by the Dr. Joseph Sonnabend and Larry's therapist and others in the medical community. We'd share info about patients and how to deal with people needing money for food, getting help from the city. I stopped going before Larry had the initial fundraiser for GMHC.
Did Larry evolve over 40 years? He always had a pretty consistent personality. He was a very angry, motivated activist but would turn on a dime and be sweet. He would call me up and scream at me over something I did or wrote, say he hated me and call me an asshole, but two days later, he'd call and say, "Hi honey, so what are we going to do about...."
He taught me that speaking truth to power to was what one should do.
SARAH SCHULMAN, author, fellow ACT UP member
I don't even know what to say. It's the end of an era. He was one of those rare people with great privilege who used it to stand up and yell at the powers that be, and by taking that leap, he was part of saving a countless number of lives. That's the reality. And he was always getting angry at you for no reason.
SEAN STRUB, Pennsylvania mayor and hotelier, founder POZ magazine, fellow ACT UP member, friend
It's like losing a mentor-hero-father-grandfather figure. There was a disconnect between the public persona of the angry, bellicose, abusive Larry and the Larry who was so caring and empathetic and paternal and wanted to make sure that everybody had a boyfriend and was taken care of. Even as our consciousness and activism evolved over the years while his might not have, you couldn't give up your affection, respect and appreciation for what he meant.
I saw "The Normal Heart" in the 1980s two days before I was diagnosed with HIV, and I walked out of that theater knowing that my life had changed. I gave up a lot of other career and life ambitions and really focused on epidemic work. And Larry, I remember when I broke my leg the summer of 1987, he brought me chicken soup. I said, "Larry, I have a broken leg, not a cold," and he said something funny in Yiddish about chicken soup being a cure-all.
I could never get Larry very engaged in networks of people living with HIV. His activism was mostly about right now, harder, faster, stronger. The long-term holistic look at the lives of people living with HIV was not his lane.
Larry got away with a lot in ACT UP because he was older. [When ACT UP started in 1987, Kramer was already 52, whereas most members were in their 20s or 30s.] If anybody else had done that, you'd have thought they were a disruptive asshole. But Larry used his elder position effectively. More than anyone else, he mobilized white gay men of privilege, including his circle of Fire Island elites, into advocacy around the epidemic, which for many of us set us on a journey into broader and permanent lives of advocacy. He was a catalyst for a huge group of people.
PHILL WILSON, former President & CEO of The Black AIDS Institute
On a number of occasions, we were speakers on panels together. I think I met him at the 1993 LGBT March on Washington, in which we were both part of a group that met President Clinton. But I remember that we were both on a panel at Yale with [now-deceased gay/HIV activists] Vito Russo and Michael Callen, and Larry was so generous with the students. He invited a number of them to come out to dinner with us and he was very effusive about the work that Vito and Michael had done. He could be very generous, relaxed and nurturing when it came to young people and he had the ability to be both inspirational and supportive.
But with all of Larry's passion, he could also not necessarily see the world from other perspectives. Right after the HIV cocktail came out [in 1996, which revolutionized HIV treatment], we were on a panel where Larry said that it was the beginning of the end of the epidemic. At the time, I was head of policy and planning for AIDS Project Los Angeles, and every day I would see long lines of poor people of color in line for the food pantry. So I said, "A few pills that work for some people some of the time does not a cure make." And his reaction to that reflected his own lived experience. He was a complex person. He was passionate, challenged folks, could be generous, but his own perspective was not universal and he didn't understand that. His was not a world full of people of color or women. And while his advocacy benefited all of us, he was often blind to those differences, or did not see them as paramount.
But I say none of that to diminish his work both against HIV and for the LGBTQ community. Without Larry, many of the valuable lessons that can be used today around COVID would not exist—namely, that we have to learn that communities matter, and that waiting for the government, and particularly this current president, to save us is something we do at our own peril.